Kate Walbert's His Favorites begins with a drunken joy ride in the 1970s, in which Jo kills her best friend. To avoid the judgment of her community, Jo enrolls in a prestigious boarding school, only to find that her guilt still makes her an outcast. A charming English teacher, Master, recognizes Jo's vulnerabilities and selects her as one of his favorites, a group of girls he both lauds and taunts in class. Outside class, the students become pawns in his games of sexual and emotional manipulation. While Jo is aware she isn't the first, she struggles under the weight of knowing that she will not be his last.
Walbert finds purchase in the slippery issue of sexual assault by burrowing into the mind of one young girl, unfurling and dissecting the nuances of her life, rather than figuring her as simply one of many. Walbert's prose can be as tense and complex as a muscle as it constructs "the springy species [of grass]... aerated by the spikes... of the golfers' shoes" and "the smell of sharp, newly shorn, fresh-turned, wormy dirt and even a certain mist." She meditates on the importance of writing in defining the self as Jo admits that her own style has been shaped by Master. While Walbert's tale raises questions of how women can speak within such a system, her storytelling is a tribute to the power of words. A brutally efficient testimony to an issue that is both timely and timeless, His Favorites
maps a trajectory that has become all too familiar in a manner that reminds readers of the individuals pinned to its heart. --Alice Martin
, freelance writer and editor
Discover: In devastatingly beautiful literary prose, His Favorites offers a deeply intimate portrait of sexual assault and manipulation.
$22, hardcover, 160p., 9781476799391
If You Leave Me
Crystal Hana Kim
Departures and abandonment, deaths and divorces: leavings of one kind or another sprinkle the pages of Crystal Hana Kim's If You Leave Me, a novel set in the later years and aftermath of the Korean War. Young Haemi Lee lives with her widowed mother and sickly brother, refugees of the war in a rundown camp miles from their hometown. Haemi spends her free time with her childhood friend, Kyunghwan, but she is promised to his cousin Jisoo in marriage, giving her an impossible choice: the boy she's loved since childhood, or the boy whose status and wealth can provide for her family.
"If you leave me, I won't forgive you," Haemi tells Kyunghwan. "If you leave me, I'll be alone," Kyunghwan tells Haemi. But they do leave each other, again and again--Haemi for Jisoo, for security, for the life she's told to want; Kyunghwan for honor, for revenge, for a life that could tempt Haemi.
If You Leave Me
is as much about staying as leaving, though, as Haemi in particular finds reasons to stay in the life she has chosen: the honor of her family, her love for her daughters, her desire for autonomy in a world designed to keep it from her. Complex and fully realized, Kim's characters are caught in circumstances both exceptional and ordinary. Amidst romance, war and a country not merely "rebuilding... [but] shaping ourselves into a different form," If You Leave Me
is ultimately a story about finding--and making--a life worth living. --Kerry McHugh
, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: This is a heartfelt story of love, war and self-determination in the aftermath of the Korean War.
$26.99, hardcover, 432p., 9780062645173
A River of Stars
Early in Vanessa Hua's moving debut, she describes how "long ago, two lovers--a humble cow herder and a weaver girl, a fairy in disguise--were torn apart when the Goddess of Heaven, the fairy's mother, scratched her hairpin onto the night sky, welling up a river of stars to separate them." In the following pages, two pregnant Chinese women arrive in the United States and go on the run after being betrayed and exiled by their lovers.
Scarlett Chen is a 30-something woman sent by Boss Yeung, her well-heeled and married lover, to give birth to their son at Perfume Bay--a posh "birthing hotel" in a Los Angeles suburb--and therefore gain automatic U.S. citizenship for the child. Boss Yeung intends to pay her off and raise the child with his wife, but Scarlett discovers via an ultrasound examination that she will have a daughter. Fearing anger and reprisal, she escapes in a stolen van with teenaged stowaway Daisy, a fellow Perfume Bay resident. They drive north to San Francisco's Chinatown, where they give birth, survive in poverty and evade detectives paid to find Scarlett.
Hua, a San Francisco Chronicle
columnist, has written extensively about the Asian diaspora. She approaches her story with journalistic purpose and warm humor. Her heroines in A River of Stars
are strong, resourceful and eager to embrace the values of their adopted countries to overcome desperate circumstances. In highlighting the struggles immigrants face in their home countries, Hua gives a very real face to a population often marginalized by political theorizing and racial clichés. In fact, they are not outsiders, but the very embodiment of the American dream. --Nancy Powell
, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: A River of Stars is a revelatory novel that highlights the struggles of immigrant mothers in their quest to achieve citizenship and the American dream.
$27, hardcover, 304p., 9780399178788
Mystery & Thriller
Sweet Little Lies
Cat Kinsella was eight when 17-year-old Maryanne Doyle went missing in 1998. Cat had been in the car when her father picked up a hitchhiking Maryanne only days before the teen's disappearance, but when the police came around asking questions, Cat's dad denied knowing Maryanne at all. Cat knew he was lying but told no one.
Eighteen years later, Cat is a detective constable with London's Metropolitan Police. She catches a case involving a woman murdered and dumped not far from the pub above which Cat used to live--the bar Cat's father still manages. As she digs into the dead woman's past, she makes startling discoveries that force her finally to confront her father about their own past and secrets, even if it means severing family ties forever and destroying her career.
Caz Frear's Sweet Little Lies
is an assured debut, a solid police procedural with a cast of coppers who already seem familiar. Cat's boss, DCI Kate Steele, is sharp, fair, strong but not bitchy and wears flowery dresses that make her look like a child--in other words, far from a cliché. All the characters--minor or lead, living or dead--are well crafted. Frear also makes an impression with her vivid dialogue and prose, for example, describing a chill as one "that could bring a tear to a glass eye" and having someone observe that "[s]ecrets are just gossip you haven't been drunk enough to spill yet." It's no secret that Lies
is an engrossing read. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis
, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd
Discover: A detective constable trying to solve a murder unearths disturbing secrets that might ruin her career and her family.
$26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9780062823199
Like the vintage fiction of George V. Higgins, Gravesend is a crime novel where the crime itself takes a back seat to character, corner tap argot and local streets and alleys. It's set in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood that's still as the borough was before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the hipsters invaded. Crowded with parish schools and dive taverns like Ralphie's ("a clammy sports bar full of fat cops and smooth Italian boys stinking of cologne"), it's an Italian Catholic place where church and family suffocate the young.
The plot is simple: for 16 years, Conway D'Innocenzio ("twenty-nine now, working at a goddamn Rite Aid on Eighty-Sixth Street, living with his old man") has been simmering with hatred for Ray Boy Calabrese, who bullied Conway's gay older brother to a panicked fatal dash into highway traffic. Ray Boy was put away for manslaughter, but with his release, Conway gets a pistol to take his revenge at last. After all these years of drifting, can he actually pull the trigger on his brother's tormentor and killer?
Originally published in 2013 by Broken River Books, Gravesend
was also published in a French edition by Rivage/Noir; it was recognized by the noir-loving French with a place on the 2017 Prix Polar SNCF shortlist. It features some of the same characters in Boyle's The Lonely Witness
, and provides a first look at the backside of Brooklyn world and hardboiled voice of this fiendishly talented author. --Bruce Jacobs
, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe
, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Boyle's reissued debut, Gravesend, is a remarkable evocation of character and place.
$25.95, hardcover, 240p., 9781681778495
Tales from La Vida: A Latinx Comics Anthology
Frederick Luis Aldama, editor
More than 70 Latinx artists present their views in a variety of comics styles as they recall significant moments in their lives in the U.S. They address subjects such as being unable to speak Spanish, although they may have a Latinx last name or darker skin, and confronting the expectation of fluency despite being raised in the U.S.
In "One Time, One Night," the narrator takes pride in being brown after hearing the band Los Lobos play. In "ElChupaSoyMilk," the author explores the myth of the chupacabra. Many contributors to this anthology ("California Girl," "Where the Heart Is") discuss the racism they've encountered, regardless of their country of birth, and pride in being Latinx and American, even when that feeling has arrived late in life.
The pen-and-ink illustrations vary from rough sketches to complex drawings more typical of graphic novels, mirroring the complexities and individuality of these authors. Some of the pieces use Spanish words and phrases and slang, but knowledge of the language is in no way necessary to enjoy the multiple layers and levels of entertainment found in this comprehensive compendium of honest, creative and imaginative stories. --Lee E. Cart
, freelance writer and book reviewer
Discover: A group of Latinx artists provide glimpses into their lives through this collection of comic strips.
Mad Creek Books,
$17.95, paperback, 184p., 9780814254936
Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, geopolitical expert Francis Fukuyama famously argued the triumph of liberal democracy signaled "the end of history." In Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Fukuyama revisits his old thesis and argues that in the 21st century, liberal democracy is under threat from myopic identity politics on both the political right and left.
Fukuyama's thesis is compelling. He traces the evolution of democracy, from Ancient Greece to modern times, and delineates the philosophic developments underlying contemporary political rights and concepts of equality. Marxist economic views of development have failed, he insists, because they've overlooked the importance of what he calls "thymos," the "part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity." This desire can sustain democratic institutions and equality if citizens share common civic ideals and believe they're part of something greater than themselves. Fukuyama points to Brexit as an example of the opposite: a narrow identity-based interest group superseding a common identity, in this case the European Union.
Much of Identity focuses on the darker side of identity politics. Thymos can easily morph into what the author labels "megalothymia," the "desire to be recognized as superior." This desire has fueled a new wave of nationalism and the rise of authoritarian leaders in China, Russia and elsewhere. Fukuyama sounds the alarm bells about the nationalistic tendencies of Donald Trump and argues that liberal democratic systems must resist sectarian identity politics. He also offers some practical advice on how better to assimilate immigrants and minorities into democracies.
provides a long-term view of political history while remaining relevant to the present day. --Scott Neuffer
, writer, poet, editor of trampset
Discover: Francis Fukuyama delves into identity politics in this wide-ranging work of history and political philosophy.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
$26, hardcover, 240p., 9780374129293
The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism
Vanity Fair contributing editor Peter Biskind has written juicy exposés on the birth of new Hollywood in the 1970s (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) and the rise of indie filmmakers in the 1990s (Down and Dirty Pictures). He now turns his sights on how extremism in politics has affected 21st-century films and TV shows. Abandoning the oral history format of his previous books, The Sky Is Falling is a dizzying ideological treatise on how extremist politics has changed films and TV shows. It has "normalized the extremes so that they become the new mainstream... behavior that was once beyond the pale--violence, lying, revenge--have become the new norm as the public good is replaced by self-interest."
The TV espionage thriller 24, which ran during George W. Bush's two terms as president, "used the war on terror as a pretext for the establishment of the surveillance state. Were it not for Jack [Bauer]'s aversion to bureaucracy, 24 would have rung every note in the neocon songbook." Each season had audiences rooting for a hero who used torture to gain information.
Biskind also criticizes left-leaning productions (chiefly Avatar
and the TV series Lost
), demonstrating that many highlight "the Luddite-left's distrust of machines." Extreme gore on shows like True Blood
and The Walking Dead
has desensitized TV viewers. The final chapter checks in on films that were green-lit before the #MeToo movement but came out at exactly the right time (including Wonder Woman
, The Post
and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
). The Sky Is Falling
eloquently chronicles pop culture's pervasive role in mainstreaming extremism. --Kevin Howell
, independent reviewer and marketing consultant
Discover: Biskind's The Sky Is Falling is a fast-paced and eloquent ideological treatise on how radical politics has normalized extreme behaviors in films and TV shows.
The New Press,
$26.99, hardcover, 256p., 9781620974292
Essays & Criticism
In the Shadow of King Saul
Writer of more than 50 works of fiction and nonfiction, Charyn has worn many hats and mastered many styles. With In the Shadow of King Saul
, Charyn (Jerzy
, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
) offers a powerful, sprawling collection of autobiographical essays.
He communicates in staccato sentences, building mosaics of meditations on love and loss. He profiles writers known and forgotten, politicians, stars of the silver screen and his own family: essays chronicle a day with New York City mayor Ed Koch, the execution of Isaac Babel, the significance of Ellis Island, the promise and tragedy of "the Black Babe Ruth" Josh Gibson, the circumstances of a heart-wrenching faked letter to Charyn's mother. Haunting the collection's core is the figure of King Saul, cast aside for the vaunted David, who, as Leonard Cohen (whom Charyn extols) wrote, "played the secret chord."
Charyn doesn't claim to have the secret chord nor the perfect words. Instead, he celebrates silence and the silenced. He does not dance around the problems of the present, but steps back for a broader picture of "a century of mass migration and mass murder, of dreamlike poverty and dreamlike wealth, of businessmen-philosophers and pauper-kings." His growing up in "the century of Hollywood and Hitler" informs his reflections on glamour and horror, awe at the awesome and awful, and the power of words, whether in truth, lies, love or a silent shadow--or a slurry of them all. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer
Discover: Decorated writer Jerome Charyn composes an autobiography of essays, sharing lessons learned from a lifetime of love for leading ladies, literature and language.
Bellevue Literary Press,
$16.99, paperback, 272p., 9781942658429
The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn
, trans. by Todd Fredson
Ivorian poet and writer Tanella Boni has been celebrated for decades, but The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn is her first book of poems to be translated into English. It is broken into two large sections, each laying out a provocative, imagistic narrative that speaks to the Ivory Coast's recent, brutal history. These sections are further broken into nameless, smaller poems.
Boni's writing, translated from the French by Todd Fredson, does not pause for punctuation, making sentences crash together, thoughts meld and images blur. Reading The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn
feels a bit like looking into a kaleidoscope as an unseen hand turns the viewfinder to create new patterns and colors. But Boni is too skilled a poet to let her readers go far adrift. The second, shorter section of The Future
, "A Murdered Life," contends with the brutal killing of a young man during the Ivory Coast's sectarian violence in 2000. There, Boni's words vividly depict the ruthlessness of her country's past. She describes the death in terse, harsh words: "Out in the open a man in uniform/ clubbed you/ in compliance/ you split at the temple like fruit." Whatever dreamlike imagery that has come before is silenced by the pain and death she brings to the forefront at this moment. The result is electric, a book where both gorgeous imagery and human cruelty arrest the reader, pointing them toward a perspective of the Ivory Coast that is personal, magical and true. --Noah Cruickshank
, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn is the first English translation of a collection of celebrated Ivorian poet Tanella Boni.
University of Nebraska Press,
$17.95, paperback, 96p., 9781496211859
Children's & Young Adult
Caldecott-winning author/illustrator Yuyi Morales's (Viva Frida
) newest book, Dreamers
, begins with the lines, "I dreamed of you, then you appeared. Together we became Amor--Love--Amor. Resplendent life, you and I." A double-page spread shows a woman and baby, both with outstretched arms, reaching for each other across the textured paper's blank space.
"One day we bundled gifts in our backpack, and crossed a bridge outstretched like the universe." The mother dons the pack and carries the baby across the bridge. The mountains are gray, the bridge is gray, the birds are gray but the mother's multi-colored skirt shines with brilliant color. "And when we made it to the other side, thirsty, in awe, unable to go back, we became immigrants. Migrantes, you and I." This new place welcomes them "in words unlike those of [their] ancestors" and they stumble through life in their new city, "[u]nable to understand, and afraid to speak."
"Thousands and thousands of steps we took around this land, until the day we found... a place we had never seen before." Three double-page spreads are allotted to the discovery of the library, the awe, then wariness, then joy clear on the mother's face. Dreamers
is Yuyi Morales's own immigration story. To create this book, she "painted with acrylics and drew on paper with ink and brushes," as well as photographed and scanned "many things"--the floor of her studio, traditional Mexican fabrics--to "give the book life." She is most certainly successful. Every page of Dreamers
vibrates with energy, depicting the emotions, the turmoil, the stress and the joy that come with creating a new life. "Someday," the book finishes, "we will become something we haven't even yet imagined. But right now.... We are stories. We are two languages.... We are Love Amor Love." --Siân Gaetano
, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Yuyi Morales tells her own immigration story in the glorious, emotional picture book Dreamers.
Neal Porter/Holiday House,
$18.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780823440559
Hammering for Freedom: The William Lewis Story
Rita Lorraine Hubbard
, illust. by John Holyfield
William "Bill" Lewis was born on a plantation in Winchester, Tenn., sometime between 1810 and 1815. The black biological son of Colonel James Lewis, Bill was enslaved alongside his mother and siblings. "As soon as Bill was old enough to grip a hammer, Colonel Lewis decided that the young boy should be a blacksmith." Bill started by putting away tools, sweeping ashes and hauling coal and water; as he grew, he learned more about the trade and increased his skills. "Bill had not asked to become a blacksmith, but he was very good at it.... He earned so much money fixing old tools and creating new ones that Colonel Lewis let Bill keep a little money for himself." And this was how his plan blossomed: he decided that he would use his skills, work hard and earn enough money to buy his and his family's freedom.
Bill opened up a blacksmith shop and slowly, through relentless, near-constant work, earned the money to free first his wife, then himself, his child, his mother, his aunt, his brothers and, finally, his sister. "Twenty-six years after" Bill put his plan in action, it was complete: "Now he finally had his loving family around him, just like when he was a boy. Only now they were all free."
Rita Lorraine Hubbard's first picture book, Hammering for Freedom
, is a thoroughly researched, absorbing account of Bill Lewis, a respected freed slave in his pre-Civil War, segregated community. Hubbard doesn't shy away from the realities of slavery but she keeps the focus on Bill's force of will and dedication to his dream. Holyfield's acrylic illustrations are richly colored and dramatic, full of movement and emotion, matching the vibrant text that documents this inspirational life. --Siân Gaetano
, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: This meticulously researched account of Bill Lewis's life in--and escape from--slavery is an engrossing work of nonfiction for young readers.
Lee & Low,
$17.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 7-11, 9781600609695
There's a Hole in My Garden
In January, a child finds a hole in his garden that's "not a very big hole." But since "it's just the right size for [his] best marble," the unnamed boy drops the marble in and hopes a tree will grow from it. When February rolls around, there's no marble tree (because "[m]arble trees don't grow overnight"), but since the hole is "a little bigger now," he drops in some candy, hoping for "a candy tree." Of course, March comes and "[t]he candy tree isn't growing either." But the hole is even bigger now, so in goes his flashlight. April, May, June... the rest of the year comes and goes with the boy expecting trees to grow out of the increasingly absurd items--robot, piano, dinosaur!--he throws into the ever-enlarging hole. Finally, by December, when the hole has grown so large it's "swallowed the garden," the boy does some research and comes up with his most spectacular idea yet.
There's a Hole in My Garden
is a great deal of fun to read aloud, and the understated humor will leave audiences in stitches; the matter-of-fact depictions of the boy throwing bigger and bigger objects into a hole are hilarious. Black-and-white spot art on the left set up the main activities on the right, which play out in full color, full-page displays. Stewart provides just enough context to ground the story in a recognizable world, making the antics more effective, and his somewhat spare style nevertheless delivers plenty of details to discover on subsequent readings. Even the pickiest of young readers should find themselves drawn into the deadpan humor and wowed by the stellar ending. --Lynn Becker, blogger
and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
Discover: Hoping to grow an unusual tree, a boy plants larger and larger objects in an ever-widening hole in his garden.
$16.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 3-5, 9780807578551